Column: Sadly, Steroids Saved Baseball

By BEN WALKER
The Associated Press
Friday, July 21, 2006; 3:43 PM

-- So Barry Bonds will hobble toward the home run record, heading down a tarnished path toward a mark Major League Baseball and many fans prefer he never reach.

Free from indictment _ for now _ Bonds always will walk under a cloud of suspicion. He'll forever be the very symbol of the Steroid Era, a time when everything good about the game came under attack.

Which makes this hard to say: Steroids saved baseball.

Cal Ripken's streak helped. So did the family-friendly ballparks that sprung up. Add interleague play, the wild card, the rise of the Yankees and, in a curious way, the death of Mickey Mantle and how it made baby boomers nostalgic about their childhood.

All that played a part in baseball's renaissance, especially after the players' strike wiped out the 1994 World Series.

But when it came to making baseball popular again and turning it into a booming business, nothing did the job like home runs. Particularly 500-foot home runs.

Mock the moonshots Mark McGwire launched into Big Mac Land, or the rockets Sammy Sosa sent onto Waveland Avenue or the drives Rafael Palmeiro pulled at the warehouse. Go ahead, call them steroid-infused.

Before throwing 'em out, though, let's rewind to 1998.

Remember that season? Sure you do. The Summer of Love in baseball, when a home-run chase captivated an entire nation, providing a montage of feel-good moments straight out from "Field of Dreams."

There was a choked-up McGwire, hugging the Maris family, hoisting his son, saluting Sosa and holding up the ball from historic No. 62 as America cheered.

"The whole country has been involved in this," he said that warm evening at Busch Stadium. "So be it. I'm happy to bring the country together."

The only thing that night needed was James Earl Jones himself, rumbling on about the virtues of "base-baw," Ray.

Of course, we now know that it was a bunch of hooey.

Called before Congress in March 2005, McGwire refused to discuss the past and Sosa denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but their performances at the Capitol spoke plenty. In August 2005, Palmeiro tested positive for steroids and professed he didn't know how it happened.

For a long time, however, no one was complaining. Not when Jose Canseco crashed balls off the windows of that center-field restaurant at SkyDome, or when the AL romped 13-8 at Coors Field in the highest-scoring All-Star game or when each night's highlights became Home Run Derby.

From 1990 to 2000, home runs increased nearly 50 percent, the Elias Sports Bureau reported. Scoring went up about 20 percent. Attendance also spiked, before and after the strike.

Purists cringed. Casual fans _ millions of them _ packed the parks to see the sluggers swing away. Baseball won.

In those days, few delved deeply into why balls were flying over the fences. Rather, there were stock answers: smaller parks, watered-down pitching, juiced balls and bigger players.

Looking back, certainly there should have been a closer examination from all sides. But there was such a boom, hardly anyone wanted to question it.

At the recent All-Star game, commissioner Bud Selig railed against "revisionist history" that baseball knew about steroids many years ago and did nothing about them. He said there was no solid evidence of the problem, and there's no concrete evidence to refute him.

No doubt, this much is clear: While steroids wrecked the game, they also saved it.

© 2006 The Associated Press